LAST WEEK, I ate planked shad, a dish I have been fixing to put a fork in for some 20 years. It was a treat -- moist, delicate and free of bones.
The technique of nailing fish to a board and cooking it next to a charcoal fire is rarely used in restaurants. Usually planked shad is fixed for a large group, such as the group of shad researchers who were holding a conference in Baltimore's National Aquarium last week. When word reached me that the researchers were going to be fed planked shad during an afternoon bus trip to the Conowingo Dam, I made sure I got a seat on that bus.
Arriving at the dam, I was greeted with a vision of shad fillets basking on white- oak planks next to a pyre of glowing charcoal briquettes. Behind me, the mighty Susquehanna River roared. In front of me, the delicious shad sizzled. Life looked good.
Christopher Letts, the man who roasted the fish, told me he got the shad from a New Jersey seafood supply house that employed a skilled shad boner. Letts puts on several shad roasts a year, most of them at events held in the summer along the Hudson River. He works for the Hudson River Foundation, one of the organizers of Shad 2001: A Conference on the Status and Conservation of Shads Worldwide.
During the three-day event, there were speeches and discussions of research papers in downtown conference rooms. But one afternoon, Letts fired up some charcoal, nailed some shad fillets to boards, and fed the researchers the fish they were studying.
Traditionally, the spawning run of shad from the Atlantic through the Chesapeake Bay and into area rivers has been hailed as a sign of spring. Although in recent years conservation regulations have prohibited keeping shad caught in Maryland rivers, area seafood dealers have been able to secure supplies from other states where the fishery is in better shape.
Fans of shad praise the fish as the most delectable herring, but it is still a tough sell in seafood markets. Shad has a bunch of bones -- about 769, according to research conducted by C. Lavett Smith of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Through the years, cooks have taken one of two approaches to the bones: They either remove them or dissolve them.
Removing the bones can be time-consuming if you try it yourself. A few skilled shad boners can be found in area seafood houses, but their number is dwindling.
As for dissolving, some Eastern Shore cooks have recommended softening the bones by baking the fish for five or six hours in a covered container with vegetables. In a similar vein, libertine types in Baltimore have recommended pouring wine and herbs on the shad, then cooking it for six hours.
Historically, feelings about cooking shad have run deep, as a 1949 exchange of letters in The Sun showed. A Sun columnist had advocated the six-hour, wine-soaked cooking method. But the chef at the Sheraton Belvedere hotel wrote that he had tried the technique and found it lacking. "This used to be a shad, ... but what is it now?" the chef wrote. "I will tell you. It is a pickle. The flesh is there, but the spirit has departed."
The scrumptious planked shad that Letts cooked on the banks of the Susquehanna had been boned and skinned. During an interview with the cook, often interrupted as he gave hugs to old friends or made adjustments to the fire, Letts told me the fine points of planking shad.
The planks are pieces of white oak, 18 inches long, 12 inches wide and 1 inch thick. He bought the wood at a New York lumberyard. Each plank has two wooden legs, or props, that extend from the side, holding the plank upright. The legs pivot, and about halfway though the cooking process, Letts turns the planks upside down. He nails two fillets topped with several strips of bacon into each plank.
For his fire, he covers the ground with rolls of aluminum foil, then makes a long, low mound of charcoal briquettes. He lights the briquettes, and when the coals are white-hot, he positions the planked shad, resting at about an 80-degree angle, in a row about two feet away from the fire.
"It is red-hot at first, but then you watch it, to avoid conflagrations," he said. If your bacon or your wood starts to char, your plank is too close to the fire, he said. As the fish cooks, the planks are gradually moved away from the coals.
Usually the shad has finished cooking in 40 minutes to an hour. But he warned that weather could slow the process. "Rain is a problem, because each raindrop acts like a mortar shell when it hits the coals, sending up dust," he said. A back-draft, a gust of wind that catches the cook by surprise and deposits the planks in the fire, is also a major worry, Letts said.
Planking shad, he said, is an ideal technique for someone who likes hanging around outside near a big fire and talking as he cooks.
Letts also gave me the recipe for another way to prepare shad -- soaking it in brine.
The process takes longer, about three days, but it dissolves the bones.
He gave me a sample. The brined shad was delicious and had a nice crunch. Borrowing a phrase from an old Baltimore chef, I would say, "It tasted like a pickle."